U.S. peanut company feared salmonella loss: hearing

Wed Feb 11, 2009 12:14pm EST
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By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. peanut company blamed for a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 600 people was more concerned about the cost of the contamination than public health, members of the U.S. Congress told a hearing on Wednesday.

Peanut Corporation of America shipped peanut products from its plants to schools, nursing homes and food processors, even after getting lab tests showing salmonella contamination, they said.

The contamination, which may be linked to eight deaths, has forced one of the biggest food recalls in U.S. history, scared Americans away from one of their favorite foods and brought the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under intense scrutiny.

Republican Representative Greg Walden held up a plastic jar filled with recalled products and asked Peanut Corporation of America President Stewart Parnell if he would like to sample them.

"Lives were lost and people were sickened because they took a chance, I believe knowingly, with products that were contaminated," Walden said in opening comments at a hearing of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman displayed excerpts from internal company e-mails he said were from Parnell. "What they show is this company cared more about its financial bottom line than about the safety of its customers," Waxman said.

One e-mail said the problem was "costing us a huge (amount of) $$$$" while another said the company "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."

Inspections showed the company had not only several tests that showed salmonella contamination but also cockroaches, a leaky roof and filthy equipment, the FDA has said.   Continued...

<p>Salmonella bacteria in an undated image courtesy of the CDC. REUTERS/CDC/Handout</p>